(Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
There’s the feel good game we’ve been waiting for. Kentucky recovered from a sloppy start to shut down Georgia by a final score of 79-54. Here are the five things that stood out to me.
1. Better ball movement
All year, we’ve complained about this team’s passing, and it looks like they’re finally getting their timing right. The Cats moved the ball better than they have all season this afternoon. As Cal put it after the game, there weren’t very many “ball stoppers” on the court today, and there were certain series in which the Cats’ passing was downright pretty. I think we all cheered when Julius, swarmed by defenders, passed it out to James Young for a three instead of muscling it in. Even more, Kentucky showed off a mid-range game that we haven’t really seen before, with the Harrison Twins connecting on several mid-range jumpers. Afterwards, Cal joked that he wanted Aaron to be “the best two-point shooter in the country.” Based on his efficient 15-point performance, I do too.
It was an incredibly balanced game for Kentucky, with eleven Cats scoring, four in double figures. Cal sounded like a proud papa in his postgame remarks, praising Alex Poythress for another good performance (11 points and 5 rebounds in 16 minutes), and his team for how they cheered each other on. Before the game, Cal said that for Kentucky to make “the quantum leap,” they needed to play as a team. After the game, Cal said they’re not quite there, but he’s seeing progress:
“We’re still not there. We got better, more energy off the ball, didn’t stop the ball as much, but we’re still a ways away. We still do stuff like most of it’s mental discipline now. That’s the next level of the process. Get the players right, playing hard, thinking right, understanding their role and how they have to play for us to win. Okay, now you’ve got to get your team right. Now we’ve got to be more like a team, and that means don’t hold the ball. That means play with energy off the ball. On the ball, that’s fine, but what about off the ball? That’s what a team does.”
2. Andrew Harrison is becoming the Andrew Harrison we thought he’d be
Of course, much of Kentucky’s improved handling is thanks to Andrew Harrison, who put in another impressive performance this afternoon. On paper, Andrew’s stat’s weren’t stunning–7 points, 5 assists, 3 turnovers, 1 block and 1 steal–but anyone watching the game could see how much he’s progressed, and how well the team runs with him at the point. I’m especially encouraged by how Andrew and his brother are diversifying their game with jumpers and drives. (Something tells me that Georgia player’s ankles will be sore for a while.) Cal said that Andrew played well again this afternoon, and is slowly overcoming his habit of dropping his head after missing shots:
“He missed three like runners that when he got upset about the one, put his head down, I took him out. It’s a great shot; you missed it. But you’re going to have an attitude, head down on that? It was a great shot. You know, that’s the thing he and his brother are getting by, so now you don’t see it as much anymore. They understand, just play for your team, take the shots you’re supposed to take.”
3. It’s all in the headband
All week, we’ve been worrying about Willie. After some good practices, some late nights in the gym, and a few introspective tweets, Willie put his headband back on and snapped out of his funk, finishing with 8 points, 3 rebounds, 6 steals, and 6 blocks. Those stats speak volumes about his effort, and even though he missed a few easy shots, his presence was felt on the defensive end. Afterwards, Cal said that Willie was “in a totally different state of mind” this afternoon.
Willie told reporters after the game that he knew he was back when he woke up this morning. Before the game, he tweeted that Alex Poythress told him he needed to wear headband and arm sleeves again to get back to his old self. It worked. Willie joked after the game that the headband is here to stay: “Got to give the people what they want.” #TeamHeadband
4. The defense is back
Kentucky’s defense was excellent this afternoon. The Cats held Georgia to 32.7% shooting and forced a season-high 20 turnovers. They also blocked 11 shots, tying a season high. UK is now 34-0 in the Calipari era when holding opponents to 55 or fewer points. James Young attributed that strong defensive performance to communication:
“It comes with playing together. We also communicate a lot more. We are getting better than when we first started. We usually give a lot of baseline drives and let the guy drive right past us, but we are getting better. It’s a process and we are just taking it day by day. Everyday we are communicating on how we can get better as a team. To be where we want to be, it is going to take time.”
5. Can we have a round of applause for the football staff?
I never thought I’d see the day where we ended a basketball recap with football talk, but then again, I never thought I’d see the day when football early enrollees would be introduced during a timeout at Rupp Arena. As Nick told you earlier, Drew Barker and the 2014 early enrollees got their moment in the spotlight this afternoon, and Vince Marrow was the “Y,” taking off his big UK sweatshirt to reveal a Danny Trevathan jersey. He was quickly joined by the mascots, who were wearing Jacob Tamme and Wesley Woodyard jerseys. After the game, John Calipari did a bit of football recruiting himself, telling Tom Leach that he told the recruits that the cold weather wasn’t the norm here, and it’s usually “like San Diego” year round in Lexington. He may have even dropped a Matt Elam reference, saying “there’s still one recruit we’re trying to figure out.” Now that’s how you use basketball to help recruit football players.
A 25-point win over a Georgia team without one its leading scorers feels good, but probably doesn’t qualify as a “breakout game” for Kentucky. The real test of how far this team has come and how far they may go begins on Tuesday, when they go on the road to LSU, and later in the week, Missouri. Can they hang on to all their good habits? If so…watch out.